Friday, May 8, 2009

Song Lyric of the Day (Chicago’s Robert Lamm, on “Harry Truman”)

“America needs you, Harry Truman
Harry, could you please come home?”—Chicago, “Harry Truman,” words and music by Robert Lamm, from Chicago VIII

It’s been a long, long time since I heard this tribute to President Truman, born on this day 125 years ago—and, to tell the truth, this is not one of my favorite Chicago songs. But its popularity indicates something mighty interesting about Presidential reputations, especially that of the man from Missouri. Its rise up the pop charts in 1975 came toward the end of what I consider the third great wave of the Truman revival.

When he left the Presidency, following a stalemate in Korea and headlines about cronyism and corruption, Truman’s approval rating was in the low-to-middle-20s—not much higher than George W. Bush’s when he exited. Then, about 10 years later, it began a slow, steady rise. Today, Truman is ranked among the near-great Presidents. The following are the factors in this three-stage ascent:

* Outlasting his enemies—by the early-to-mid-Sixties, activist Democratic Presidents were back in the White House and back in style, Korea had faded as an issue, and with the civil-rights movement and health care firmly on the agenda of President Lyndon Johnson, Truman received belated recognition from historians.

* A contrast with tawdry successors—by the early 1970s, Oval Office lying led Americans to look back nostalgically to a time when Presidents were blunt. The year Truman died, 1972, was also the year that the young politico he despised during his Presidency, Richard Nixon, became involved in Watergate. The 33rd President’s reputation for bluntness was enhanced further by a bestselling oral history published after his death, Plain Speaking, by Merle Miller. (Ironically, we know now, because of transcripts released several years ago by the Truman Library, that Miller entirely made up some of the President’s responses, and that Truman even sent a letter threatening a lawsuit if Miller released a book with these “inaccuracies.” Naturally, Miller waited till Truman was dead before doing so!)

* The attention of David McCullough—The great historian found in Truman a subject similar to his other Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, John Adams—of humble stock, utterly devoted to his wife, a man who had the impossible task of following a Presidential legend. A natural storyteller, McCullough shows how Truman never ducked a tough decision—and, more often than not, got it right.

Though the photo accompanying this post doesn’t show Truman as we came to know him in his sixties, I’m pretty fond of it because it reminds me of the nickname given him by Secretary of State Dean Acheson: “the captain with the mighty heart.” It’s Truman in his uniform in WWI, when he was the only American President to see combat. (Dwight Eisenhower trained soldiers at Fort Leavenworth, including Lt. F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

Thirty-four years old and legally blind in one eye, Truman shouldn’t have even made it overseas, but he memorized the eye chart. The battery he led into combat in August 1918 consisted of a bunch of rough, tough, primarily Irish recruits—my type of guys!—who were sure they’d drive him away, just as they did his three predecessors. And for awhile, Truman was inclined to agree with them.

Then, in the middle of a dark, wet night, trapped under deadly German fire, Truman stood his ground and rallied soldiers who had been looking desperately for any which way to get out of there. He marched them out of danger without a single casualty.

After that, taking over for FDR and firing General MacArthur could only seem like cake.

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